18 October 2007

Enjoy the phone booth, Yvonne

sitting dayWhile it had plenty of time to get ready for a fall sitting, the Williams administration announced on Thursday that the House of Assembly would not be called into session until an unspecified time in early 2008.

The table at left demonstrates that the sitting days of the provincial legislature have been declining dramatically under the current administration.

The last session of the House also demonstrated the increasing tendency for government to rush important legislation through the legislature without thorough and proper debate.

The official excuse for the missed fall sitting - repeated approvingly by CBC's provincial affairs reporter without any analysis - is that there simply isn't enough time to get everything ready.

Sheer bunk.

A properly functioning government would normally be developing legislation in anticipation of a second sitting of the legislature. During the campaign, the premier indicated that several ideas in his party's platform, including the bootie call policy, were already being considered well before the election date. On top of that, in the current context, there are several issues that could stand with public scrutiny in the one place where any government can and should be held properly accountable for its actions, namely the legislature. These issues would include the Hebron negotiations, development of the Lower Churchill, the energy plan, health care (including the Burin radiologist case) and education funding.

There is no legitimate excuse for cancellation of the fall sitting.

Of course, there have been persistent problems with the current administration functioning on a smooth, orderly and timely basis. It took four years to proclaim its own accountability legislation and then gave an additional two years for full compliance once the act was proclaimed. A story in the Thursday Telegram (not available online) reported that privacy protection sections of a piece of legislation passed five and a half years ago have still not been proclaimed. Speaking on VOCM Night Line, justice minister Tom Osborne said that some government departments are still not in a position to comply with the privacy provisions and so implementation will be delayed until such time as all departments are ready. Osborne gave no timeline for implementation yet insisted - as with all issues facing the current administration - that the privacy provisions of the bill in question remain a "priority" for government.

As an ominous portent of the future, a Liberal party spokesperson had no problem with keeping the legislature closed for an extended period, saying only that perhaps the government might consider calling the House into session a little earlier in the New Year. New Democratic Party leader Lorraine Michael expressed some consternation.

However, if the re-elected members of the opposition parties continue their past practice of co-operating fully with government's efforts to speed passage of legislation, then the legislature might well wind up sitting for only a handful of days each spring.

The situation is reminiscent of the one in the late 1980s when the Peckford administration opened the House only when necessary. It severely restricted the budget of the opposition and, by keeping the legislature closed, forced the opposition to submit costly access to information to requests in order to find information that would have otherwise been available.

Given that Premier Danny Williams has such evident lack of regard for the legislature as an institution, it wouldn't be surprising if one of his caucus repeated the immortal words of a Peckford- era cabinet minister, saying that he couldn't care less if the opposition party met in a telephone booth.